Brands in the Court of Public Opinion

>The double edged sword of freedom. 

Harper’s Magazine, the oldest general-interest monthly in America, explores the issues that drive our national conversation through long-form narrative journalism and essays. In July 2020, Harpers published A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,signed by a who’s who list of professors, writers, scientists, intellectuals and thinkers. In three short paragraphs, it describes the dilemma brands face in the modern communications ecosystem. 

In the internet age, free speech comes with an increasing threat of retaliation. The reach of social media gives brands more platform than ever before, a new freedom to speak directly to their audiences. But this freedom  is double edged. What used to be private “cards and letters” have become posts, shares, videos and memes that are searchable, and can trend globally without expiration. If the evolution of cultural norms turns against your favor,  the opinions, images and content can have devastating consequences for your reputation. It could even result in your brand being “cancelled”.

Cancel culture is a form of online shaming that represents a completely new risk for creative content. It is a modern form of ostracism in which a brand, person, product or concept is thrust out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both. The threat is real, and forges a new consideration for how brands choose to align. 

>Facing the dilemma

Brands are faced with a dilemma: is the reward of having a unique market position worth the risk? . While it’s certainly safest for brands to remain neutral it carries the weight of being unremarkable, mundane and forgettable. Generic offerings are usually low-price substitutes for their branded counterparts, and while they may compete with price, they offer little promise of customer loyalty.

Strong brands take stands. They appeal to niche audiences who identify with the core values and principles that the brand reflects. Since customers feel a strong attachment with the brand’s promise and position, they’re often willing to pay more for something they love and trust. Brands like Apple and Nike are obvious examples.

But if public sentiment changes, your position could become a liability. Attitudes towards gender equality, racial reform, economic divide, environmental protection and law enforcement are rapidly evolving. The things we accepted for generations are being rethought. The risk and reward equation is growing more and more complex.

A dilemma, which is Greek for “two premises”, can be likened to the horns of an angry, charging bull. The horns represent the two unpleasant outcomes attached to the same issue, with  inherent danger in making the right choice.

Plato’s ancient dialogues remark that every dilemma affords not two, but three options. You could grab the left horn and attempt survival on one side of the issue.  Or, you could take the right horn and take your chances with the other side. Or you could go between the horns and deny that there are only two choices. It’s the concept of grabbing the bull by the horns to steer your own path forward.

>Preparing for reactionism

The free exchange of ideas is becoming more constricted due to the fear of backlash by an increasingly intolerant public. This is enabled by unprecedented ease of global communications, mobile devices, social media platforms and zero-cost broadcasting. A vocal minority can masquerade as the voice of reason using targeted messaging based on online behavior profiling. The tools of classic propaganda have been put in the hands of everyone. That the genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going to be recaptured. 

It’s easy to misinterpret a sound byte and assume it’s representative of the whole story. With an avalanche of communications vying for attention, we’re moving faster and faster from message to message. 

Information was once a valuable asset, the result of laborious effort and study. The internet has had the unintended consequence of transforming information into a (worthless) commodity. There’s just too much information available to discern fact from fiction, so we’re relying more and more on external opinion to form our own conclusions.

Here then is the heart of the issue: we’re more reactionary but also more dependent on outside opinions. But those willing to offer those opinions are increasingly at risk of censure. 

Brands can’t afford to act on impulse and opinion alone. While standing still will get you nowhere, moving without foresight could be disastrous. It’s never been more important to understand your audience, your competitors and the context in which your brand is heard. Think of your brand in a 360 degree media-scape that’s always changing. It’s critical to keep your eyes and ears open. 

Brands, by definition, position products, services, platforms and companies in the marketplace to make them more memorable. It’s most effective when it taps an emotional reaction to produce an experience with your customers. That will never change. But in the world of online communications, opinions can come in and out of favor faster than ever. Do you take the risk of being cancelled, or do you feel the consequences of being unremarkable in a crowded market?

There’s not only two options. With informed decisions, your brand can respond to the current climate while remaining relevant in the future.   To do that, it’s essential to listen. Brand research is an evergreen activity that’s easier than ever to maintain. Using online analytics, surveys, ratings and direct dialog it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of your brand position and messages. That provides insights to avoid catastrophes. It’s the only way to control the bull, instead of letting the bull control you. 

But it requires an open mind and the ability to be objective. It can be hard to see your brand from the perspective of an outsider. Brands are excellent hypnotists, and it’s natural to believe your views reflect reality. The market however continues to reinterpret your brand messaging in terms of the current context. And the context is changing faster than ever.

In some cases, it makes sense to fight for what’s right and stand your ground. Taking a knee during the National Anthem was once highly controversial, but now it’s become a symbol of unity. When your morals and ethics are noble, it’s worth holding on to your principles. But it’s equally important to admit mistakes. No brand is perfect.

>In certain circumstances, evolving is essential. 

Rebranding could be your only option if circumstances are beyond repair. Corporate rebranding is a real way to distance yourself from past problems. The branding process helps re-orient the entire enterprise, and provides an outward indication of transformation.

What is most important is to revisit your brand regularly. The world’s in Flux. Are you keeping up?